Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

On Being a Cop, Stop and Frisk, Racial Profiling and Why I Support NYC City Council Bill 1080

Recently the New York City Council voted to approve what is known as the “End Discriminatory Profiling Act” or Intro 1080. You can read the text of this bill here:|Text|&Search=1080

The meat of the thing is in section 1, paragraph 1. Notice, if you will, there is nothing here that says police cannot use the race of a particular suspect of a particular crime as part of a legitimate criminal description. I say that because our mayor and Police Commissioner and all the line organizations keep claiming that it does but I have faith that my readers are literate enough to discern that the word “a” is different from the word “the” and stuff like that.

Mayor Bloomberg has vetoed this legislation. Sometime this month the City Council will likely vote to overturn that veto. Unlike most police, active and retired, I wholeheartedly support this legislation. Let me tell you why, by telling you my story.

I am often told “you don’t seem like a cop.” Depending on why is saying this, and how they feel about police, it is either a compliment or an insult. Either way, it is probably true. I don’t fit certain stereotypes. But, yes, I definitely was a cop and I will always carry that experience with me.

I first became a police officer in 1982. At the time, I lived on the Lower East Side of New York City, on East 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, having moved there from Ohio in 1977. If you are from NYC, you may now know this neighborhood as the “East Village” and think of it as an artsy extension of Greenwich Village, but, back then it was still the Lower East Side on the way to becoming the Punk Rock, un-gentrified, low rent, East Village. This was also the height of the heroin epidemic. Junkies from NYC and New Jersey regularly lined up on my street to buy dope. Believe it or not, I paid $100 a month for my studio apartment. (All New Yorkers just fainted.) Just a little bit east of where I lived, beginning on Avenue D were projects, the Riis, Wald, and Baruch Houses.

As a woman, living alone in a not-so-safe neighborhood, I was very concerned about both personal safety and the safety of my neighbors. To that end, I had become a student of the martial arts. I was also a graduate student in psychology at the New School for Social Research and a waitress serving up soy burgers at Dojo Restaurant, not making a whole lot of money, with no health care plan or other job benefits. So when an NYPD recruiter visited my Karate class and told us a little bit about the job (OK, a really romanticized version, like all recruiters tell) I decided to go for it. Aside from the money, I felt it was a chance to make this city I had grown to love a safer and better place.

Besides, dating back to the Vietnam War era I grew up in, with all the anti-war protests going on in Ohio (remember Kent State?) I had always been critical of the police, back then poetically referred to as the” f-ing pigs.” I always thought there had to be a better way of doing this job. Now I had the chance to find out. I have always believed that if you are the first one to criticize how somebody else is doing something you need to be the first to volunteer to do it yourself. So that is what I did. I took the test, went through the screening process, and became a cop.

At that time, there were actually three police departments in NYC, the NYPD (“big blue”), the Transit Police who worked in the subways and on the buses, and the Housing Police who worked in public housing “(the projects.”) Up until 1982, they also had their own police academies. My class was the first tri-department class to be trained together in the NYPD academy on 20th Street in Chelsea. All the rookies were hired off of one list of qualified applicants. Then we were divided up according to police department. Most recruits wanted “big blue” because it was the biggest and most prestigious department. I did NOT.

I was determined that I would be a community-based police officer, serving the people who needed us most and that meant being a Housing Cop. The NYC Housing Police, like all Housing Police in major cities, began when “the projects” or public housing began, under FDR. They started out as security guards and, over time, became accredited police departments. Many African-Americans, denied entry into “big blue” became housing cops, working on foot, by themselves in the projects. As the city worked to “integrate” and eventually merge the departments that would change but, for a long time, the Housing Police was a predominantly black and Latino police department serving predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. In other words, for the wrong reason – racism – the city had the right thing – community policing.

I was trained by “old time” housing cops who knew the communities they served like the back of their hands. Unlike the NYPD which mostly did patrol with sector cars, most of these men (there were very few women) had spent most of their career on foot, alone, in the same project. If something happened and they needed backup, it often meant their friends from the surrounding projects would have to respond in their own private cars, if at all. Mostly they relied on the community itself as back up, and they usually got it because people knew them and trusted them and wanted to protect them. They made arrests, actually lots of them, but when they did arrest someone, it was usually with the community’s support. I am not exaggerating when I say these were probably the finest and most brilliant police our nation has ever seen. They knew how to get a very hard job done without destroying the faith or confidence of the community.

For example, I remember one “old timer” doing what he called “playing dial a collar.” He had a warrant for someone’s arrest. He could have just called for backup from “PD” (short for “NYPD”) gone to the person’s apartment and locked him up in front of his family. But that’s not how these guys did things. Instead, he went to the “record room” (the cop’s “office” so to speak) and picked up the phone and called him saying “hey, it’s me. Listen, we have a little situation, not a big deal. We can work it out. But I just got this warrant for your arrest. Don’t worry. I’m not looking for you now. Go out and have dinner with your lady or whatever. Tonight’s on me. But tomorrow morning, it’s on you. I need you here at the record room at 10 so we can take care of this. But, if you don’t want to come, remember I know where you live. I know where your momma lives. I know where your lady lives and I know where the other one you see on the side lives and I really don’t want to go looking for you. If I do, I will have to call PD and you know how they get.” click. Next morning, 10AM, in the record room,that collar was made with no drama.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it was always that smooth. It wasn’t. Sometimes force was used and once in a while things got ugly. But there was a relationship between the community and the police who served and, in many ways, were part of that community. It was, in the truest sense of the word, community-based policing.

But it ended.

Mayor after mayor (except, I think, Dinkins) vowed to merge the three departments. This was appealing to them because it meant centralized mayoral control. To that end, the tri-department hiring process continued. With each new class more rookies came in to the housing police who did not want to be there because they wanted to be “real cops” and work for “big blue.” To be fair, many of them were excellent cops, but fewer and fewer of them had any real ties to or respect for the public housing community – or people of color . Finally, in 1995, under Mayor Giuliani, the three departments merged. Most housing and transit cops hated it. I hated it. Still do in fact.

While there are many fine people in the NYPD, their overall ethos is very different from that of the “old time” housing police. They patrol mostly in sector cars, not on foot. They don’t have steady or “beat” posts. Because they are covering the whole city, not just a segment of it, they are deployed all over the place, often with very little chance of getting to know the people they serve and, also, because they are dealing with the whole city they are under pressure to give more attention to those people and communities who have money or power or influence and not necessarily serve the “last and the least.”

And then there’s COMPSTAT. If you don’t know what that is, it is short for “comparative statistics.” This program began in the early 1990s in several major cities. Crime rates, crime patterns, summonses issued, arrests made, stop and frisk reports and much more are part of it. Commanding Officers are routinely called to One Police Plaza for COMPSTAT meetings where they are sometimes commended but most often called on the carpet in a very adversarial way concerning “the numbers” in their command. In some ways, it is a useful tool in that it helps the police get an overall picture of what is happening and, used correctly, it can be a great way of holding commanding officers accountable for their command. But there is a definite downside to the “numbers driven” approach, particularly when used as a stand alone without other measures of police performance. In the pressure to get the numbers, much falls by the wayside, like community policing.

It has also led to the abuse of the “stop and frisk” procedure. If you are not familiar with what this is, legally, here is a good summary Note it was never meant to be used as a “sweep” tactic let alone a fishing expedition in which you throw everyone up against the wall who even vaguely fits the discrimination of a suspect in some crime in the area in hopes you will turn up some drugs or guns. Note also, that a stop and frisk is NOT an arrest and NOT a search. In other words, the cop is supposed to “pat down” the person, not go in his pockets looking for stuff. Note also, a person has a legal right to walk away from a stop and frisk because it is NOT an arrest. Does that sound like what is happening right now on the streets of New York? When numbers are all that matter, the Constitution takes a back seat.

I am not convinced that numbers alone – or even numbers first – is what quality policing is all about because so much of what I have learned about police work is intangible and can’t be quantified. More to the point, hardly anything that works about real community based policing will ever come up on a COMPSTAT screen. Take the “dial a collar” example. According to COMPSTAT that’s just a warrant execution. It doesn’t matter if it took ten cops to do it, traumatizing the whole family in the process, humiliating the arrestee in a way that made him have to lash out at the cops to save face in front of everyone or if it was done “old time housing” that takes one cop and a phone and doesn’t destroy community relations in the process. In fact, other than to say how many meetings were held with “community leaders” in the precinct, or talked about frankly as a “stroke job” I never heard community relations come up at all. COMPSTAT, by definition, deals only in numbers. To succeed in the COMPSTAT world you need lots of them. Precinct commanders who want to be promoted or even keep their command are forced to put pressure on cops to bring them these numbers.

Of course, quotas are illegal so the police department can’t admit to them but please. Ask any cop working the steady late shift in the worst part of the precinct because of lack of “activity” if there are, um, at least “performance objectives” that kinda work like, yeah, quotas. And, because the pressure is on in “high crime” areas and because that is generally where black and brown people live, guess who gets to live with all this ever increasing “activity” in their neighborhood.

Now, the NYPD will tell you all the “proactive” policing that comes from the COMPSTAT approach is stopping crime. They will point to the dramatic decrease in crime in NYC over the last decade for which we are all profoundly grateful. If only NYC or only cities that were using a similar approach had experienced this drop in crime, that might be a good argument. But, the fact is, crime is down nationwide, including cities that do the COMPSTAT thing as well as cities that are doing community-based policing. Let’s face it, like any organization, police departments like to take credit where they can and deflect blame where they can’t. When crime is down, the police take credit. When it goes up, they cite other factors. I say that, again, not to caste aspersions on all the good work many police officers do. I am just saying, please. Let’s be real. Police work is only part of the picture. Ask any reputable criminologist.

But that still begs the question of why all this “activity” like stop and frisks, is focused on people of color. They will tell you that they are just stopping people according to the description of “perps” they get from victims and that most of these descriptions are of black or Latino males. At least that second part is true. Most criminal descriptions I heard over the air for 20 years did begin with “male black” or “male Hispanic.” There are lots of reasons for that (and no “they are just bad people” is probably not the best theory.)

But this argument misses the point that “numbers” alone don’t tell the whole story. COMPSTAT will never tell you what it feels like to be a law abiding and decent black or Latino man who can’t even walk down his own street without being looked at with suspicion just because, lo and behold, some other black man is doing wrong and he is, after all, the same color as they are so, even absent any other evidence connecting him to this crime, he has to undergo a pretty humiliating procedure, over and over again. COMPSTAT can tell you about numbers, but it can’t tell you what it feels like to BE just a number. It can’t tell you how, after a while, people who are targeted like this start to hate everything blue. It can’t tell you why someone who witnessed a crime won’t tell the police about it because he no longer trusts them and neither does his community. It can’t tell you the way the “snitches get stitches” ethic, born of distrust of police, slams up against the “blue wall of silence” in a way that threatens the safety of all concerned. In short, COMPSTAT can’t tell you what COMPSTAT costs. It can tell you arrests are up, including arrests for some very minor violations, but it can’t tell you how the “collars for dollars” (policing making arrests, often for minor infractions, particularly in the last hour of their tour, just for the overtime) approach may help a cop pay a few bills, but ruins another person’s future and it can’t tell you what it’s like to live in a world where, in some neighborhoods kids committing minor crimes are taken home to their parents while others end up with arrest records and worse. In short, it doesn’t tell you a whole lot of what you need to know about street reality in order to make intelligent decisions about police work.

So, back where we started. Hope you are still with me. The “end discriminatory profiling act” is not going to solve the problem of a city in a nation dealing with the effects of hundreds of years of chattel slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws and other forms of legal discrimination against black and brown people. I think anyone who has been in the anti-racist struggle for more than five minutes knows that and certainly and black or brown person knows it way better than I do. BUT, it will push back, just a little bit, against the Juggernaut of “numbers only at any cost” policing. .

It also won’t bring back my beloved Housing Police or what they stood for. Sadly, that era is behind us. BUT it MIGHT give at least a little more breathing room to those cops who are out there who have grown tired of the “numbers game” and want to try something new – like working with the communities they serve and not against them.

Most importantly, it will make life just a little more bearable and safe for people who live in communities of color and the police entrusted to serve them.

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